To call a draw devastating would be an overstatement, particularly so early in the season. That’s how it felt in the moment, though.
Bar a first half spell of 10 minutes or so, Arsenal were superior throughout Sunday’s derby. Grabbing a goal back just before half-time was a game changer, and Spurs’ players looked mentally and physically exhausted halfway through the second half. Overall Arsenal had literally twice as many shots as Spurs, and played a much better start to finish game.
Somehow, Arsenal came up short. Games like this are defined by small margins, and – unfortunately for their fans – Arsenal’s margin was wearing a captain’s armband.
Master of None
There was nothing surprising about Xhaka’s performance on Sunday. In his commentary, Gary Neville said he’d literally never seen a player foul so much, and he wasn’t exaggerating.
Xhaka has made 94 Premier League starts in his three seasons at Arsenal, since arriving for £30 million (and that was £30 million in 2016 money). In that span, he has registered a total of 18 goals and assists, and has received 25 yellow cards. Coincidentally, that’s the exact amount of yellows he received in his previous three seasons at Borussia Mönchengladbach.
That had been the knock on him, when he came over; that he was too prone to rash challenges. Wenger, the eternal optimist, hoped he would mature out of it. He has literally not matured one bit.
Granit Xhaka is a dumb footballer. I don’t know if he’s smart in real life. His being reported for racist abuse… of another white person, whom he called a “f**king white bitch”, suggests not. But I know he’s a dumb footballer.
Everything happens slowly.
The one thing he’s praised for is the range of his passing, as if every other central midfielder at a big club couldn’t hit a long pass to an open wide man. The difference with Xhaka is that he takes so long to do so. De Bruyne threads through balls you can’t even spot on your TV, taking out the defence in the process. With Xhaka, you’ve seen the open man three or four seconds before he’s finally decided to make the pass… and so have all the defenders.
On the ball, he’s got the turning speed of the HMS Victory, and is reluctant to dribble more than five yards at a time.
Defensively, his reading of the game is as poor as you’ll find. He barely serves as a toll booth as runners are afforded a high-speed lane towards Arsenal’s box. When he’s going for a tackle, the dribbler always knows it, and it’s child’s play to shift the ball away and take the foul.
I have no idea what he’s supposed to add, barring an occasional ability to bang one in from 30 yards. But he manages to take so much away. On Sunday he cost Arsenal the win, while contributing nothing except a free goal for Spurs.
If you haven’t seen his ‘tackle’ on Son yet, and you fancy a laugh, then seek it out (this link works at the time of writing). Did you ever see a more idiotic challenge? I would ask what was going through his mind in that moment, but I already know the answer – “nothing”.
Look at the ball, I bid you, at the moment Xhaka makes contact:
These were Arsenal’s captains, between 1988 and 2007:
- Tony Adams
- Patrick Vieira
- Thierry Henry
Nothing more needs to be added with that trio.
These have been Arsenal’s captains since:
- William Gallas – maligned post-Birmingham City, but highly experienced Premier League player.
- Cesc Fabregas – Arsenal’s youngest ever player on debut. 2nd-most EPL assists ever. 110 Spain appearances.
- Robin Van Persie – Golden Boot winner during captaincy season.
- Thomas Vermaelen – Arguably weakest link, but injuries derailed career. Went to Barcelona (Xhaka won’t).
- Mikel Arteta – 272 Premier League appearances. Beloved by fans of Everton and Arsenal.
- Per Mertesacker – World Cup winner (played in semi-final and final). 104 Germany appearances. Head of Arsenal Academy.
- Laurent Koscielny – 255 Arsenal appearances, 51 France appearances. Would have WC winner’s medal, but for Achilles injury.
Enter Granit Xhaka, by far the worst player on that list, easily the worst ever Premier League captain Arsenal have had.
What on-field attributes will inspire his teammates? His unerring ability to be out of position defensively? His constant fouling? What leadership qualities does he possess? Shouting quite a lot, usually at the ref whenever he concedes a foul?
It’s not like sheer seniority will inspire others to follow. He’s only 26, and as immature a footballer as you can get at that age. Of the other Big Six captains – Azpilicueta, Henderson, Lloris, Silva and Young – Henderson is the next youngest at 29. How Arsenal would love a captain with his temperament; fiery, yet controlled. Never mind the fact he can tackle. The others are all 30 and above, with hundreds of Premier League appearances and a whole lot of ‘been there, done that’ to spread around. Xhaka, again, is 26, and has done nothing.
Why he’s an ever-present when healthy is baffling, considering he’s not particularly good at football. Why he’s the captain is beyond the realm of human understanding, Unai Emery aside.
(I’m aware that Mesut Özil is technically some sort of co-captain. That Özil is also the player Emery made an example of in his first season, and effectively froze out, doesn’t shower the manager in glory either).
Poll 1,000 Arsenal supporters, and I’d warrant that exactly none of them would pick Xhaka as captain. Lacazette would get a lot of votes, and his brilliantly tenacious performance against Spurs showed why. Guendouzi showed tremendous fire as well, and already – at 20 – looks an on-pitch leader in a way Xhaka never has. Sokratis has a big mistake in him, as he showed on Sunday, but at least he’s a bit scary.
And yet, and yet.
Granit Xhaka is Arsenal’s captain. Granit. Xhaka.
Here’s what Granit had to say, when he was rumoured to be taking the armband from the departed Koscielny. You’ll enjoy this:
It would also be a special responsibility to follow in the footsteps of great players like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry.
I plan to continually improve, work on my game, get better all the time, fine-tune the small details – and to achieve success.
Follow in the footsteps of Vieira and Henry. Continually improve my game. Fine-tune the small details. Incredible.
Granit Xhaka, everybody. The one and only. 18 goal contributions, 25 yellow cards. Arsenal captain.